Two Paintings on the Same Canvas: ‘Truth About Drug Companies’ and ‘Protecting Access to Medicines’

As the saying goes, “Great people think alike”, many thought leaders of very high credibility across the globe, seem to think almost in similar lines when it comes to improving access to medicines for a large section of the global population.

In this article, I shall briefly focus on two such instances, both revolving around the same centerpiece – one from India and the other from the land of ‘pharmaceutical innovation’ – America.

An interesting article written recently by the well-regarded Indian expert of global stature Dr. K. Srinath Reddy, President, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), reiterates emphatically,  “India must protect access to medicine”.

In a more focused context related to EU-FTA, the author wrote about possible adverse impact of more stringent product patent and regulatory data protection related issues on access to generic medicines in India and other developing countries. Thus, he argued that EU-FTA should be well negotiated by India and cautioned as  follows:

“It must be remembered that India needs to protect its vital interests in any trade agreement, just as other nations strive to. Our interest lies in protecting the lives and safeguarding the health of Indians, without permitting unreasonable restrictions on our ability to produce, use and even export, generic versions of drugs the patents of which have lapsed (or where compulsory licensing has been invoked to protect public health).

India needs to tread carefully while negotiating the FTA with the EU, so that the health of the Indian people is not compromised through provisions that shackle our generic drug industry.

The debate has assumed a global dimension:

Such raging debates on a critical public health issue, like access to medicines, are also taking place in many other countries, as I write, including America, irrespective of the fact whether these are generic or patented drugs.

Marcia Angell, M.D, a faculty of Harvard Medical School and a former Editor in Chief of the world’s leading medical journal ‘The New England Journal of Medicine’ wrote an interesting book.

In this book titled “The Truth About the Drug Companies: ‪How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It”, she makes many interesting comments on the American pharmaceutical industry on access to medicines and the kind of pharmaceutical innovations that they are involved in.

The world noticed it:

This book arrested global attention and was extensively reviewed. Since, the author wrote more specifically about the American pharmaceutical industry, following are some excerpts quoted from her book reviews in the USA:

New York Times: “A scorching indictment of drug companies and their research and business practices…tough, persuasive and troubling.”

Boston Globe: “A sober, clear-eyed attack on the excesses of Drug Company power…a lucid, persuasive, and highly important book.”

Washington Post: “Always authoritative…[this book] delivers the message—that drug-company money and power is corrupting American medicine—in a convincing, no-nonsense manner.”

Some key issues raised in the book:

Like the above article of Dr. Reddy, here also the author raises some interesting issues related to the American drug companies. I am penning below some of those issues exactly as expressed by the author (verbatim):

  • The magic words, repeated over and over like an incantation, are research, innovation, and American. Research. Innovation. American. It makes a great story.
  • “R&D is a relatively small part of the budgets of the big drug companies—dwarfed by their vast expenditures on marketing and administration, and smaller even than profits.”
  • The great majority of ‘new’ drugs are not new at all but merely variations of older drugs already on the market. These are called ‘me-too’ drugs.”
  • “If I’m a manufacturer and I can change one molecule and get another twenty years of patent rights, and convince physicians to prescribe and consumers to demand the next form of Prilosec, or weekly Prozac instead of daily Prozac, just as my patent expires, then why would I be spending money on a lot less certain endeavor, which is looking for brand-new drugs?”
  • “Over the past two decades the pharmaceutical industry has moved very far from its original high purpose of discovering and producing useful new drugs. Now primarily a marketing machine to sell drugs of dubious benefit, this industry uses its wealth and power to co-opt every institution that might stand in its way, including the US Congress, the FDA, academic medical centers, and the medical profession itself. (Most of its marketing efforts are focused on influencing doctors, since they must write the prescriptions.)”
  • “Now universities, where most NIH-sponsored work is carried out, can patent and license their discoveries, and charge royalties. Similar legislation permitted the NIH itself to enter into deals with drug companies that would directly transfer NIH discoveries to industry.”
  • “Many medical schools and teaching hospitals set up “technology transfer” offices to help in this activity and capitalize on faculty discoveries. As the entrepreneurial spirit grew during the 1990s, medical school faculty entered into other lucrative financial arrangements with drug companies, as did their parent institutions.”
  • “One of the results has been a growing pro-industry bias in medical researchexactly where such bias doesn’t belong.”
  • “In the 1990s, Congress enacted other laws that further increased the patent life of brand-name drugs. Drug companies now employ small armies of lawyers to milk these laws for all they’re worth—and they’re worth a lot. The result is that the effective patent life of brand-name drugs increased from about eight years in 1980 to about fourteen years in 2000.”
  • “The biggest single item in the budget is neither R&D nor even profits but something usually called ‘marketing and administration – a name that varies slightly from company to company.”
  • The industry is fighting these efforts—mainly with its legions of lobbyists and lawyers. It fought the state of Maine all the way to the US Supreme Court, which in 2003 upheld Maine’s right to bargain with drug companies for lower prices, while leaving open the details. But that war has just begun, and it promises to go on for years and get very ugly.”
  • “The fact that Americans pay much more for prescription drugs than Europeans and Canadians is now widely known.”
  • “There are very few drugs in the pipeline ready to take the place of blockbusters going off patent. In fact, that is the biggest problem facing the industry today, and its darkest secret. All the public relations about innovation is meant to obscure precisely this fact.”
  • “Of the 78 drugs approved by the FDA in 2002, only 17 contained new active ingredients, and only seven of these were classified by the FDA as improvements over older drugs.”
  • “While there is no doubt that genetic discoveries will lead to treatments, the fact remains that it will probably be years before the basic research pays off with new drugs. In the meantime, the once-solid foundations of the big pharma colossus are shaking.”
  • “Clearly, the pharmaceutical industry is due for fundamental reform. Reform will have to extend beyond the industry to the agencies and institutions it has co-opted, including the FDA and the medical profession and its teaching centers.”
  • The me-too market would collapse virtually overnight if the FDA made approval of new drugs contingent on their being better in some important way than older drugs already on the market.”
  • A second important reform would be to require drug companies to open their books. Drug companies reveal very little about the most crucial aspects of their business.
  • “But the one thing legislators need more than campaign contributions is votes. That is why citizens should know what is really going on. Contrary to the industry’s public relations, they don’t get what they pay for. The fact is that this industry is taking us for a ride, and there will be no real reform without an aroused and determined public to make it happen.”

An opposite view:

On this an article in Forbes Magazine commented as follows:

“The problem with Angell’s arguments is that they are rife with inaccuracies and fallacies. Furthermore, she makes no accounting for changes in the industry that have occurred over the last decade.”

“It is time for those in the medical profession to spur a more truthful and factual discussion about the pharmaceutical industry and its role in the discovery and development of new medicines. The pharmaceutical industry is a key player in the evolution of healthcare and this needs to be recognized if the industry is to operate effectively.”

Conclusion:

One of the key counter arguments that very often comes up in this area, including in India is, the protection of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) is the responsibility of the Government concerned at any cost, even if such protective measures severely restrict access to these drugs to a large population of the society across the globe, due to ‘affordability’ considerations.

It is also claimed that, to come out with innovative medicines, large pharmaceutical companies invest a huge amount of money and time towards R&D related activities.

Thus, the global innovator companies, by and large, with a few exceptions though, believe that stricter enforcement of stringent patent laws by the Governments is the only answer to foster innovation within the industry. Such stringent measures, as they argue, will help them keep investing in R&D to meet the ‘unmet needs’ of patients on a continuous basis.

However, as we have seen above, many experts, like Harvard faculty Marcia Angell and Dr. K. Srinath Reddy have strong and quite different view points. It is certain that the debate on access to affordable medicines is not going to die down, at least any time soon.

Despite all these, it is not difficult, I reckon, to identify an emerging but a clear trend indicating, the priority of the Governments to protect public health interest in the longer term, will ultimately prevail in most parts of the world, including India.

Consequently, the world will probably witness more and more new government policies and legal frameworks in this area striking a right balance between improving access to medicines and fostering innovation, as the countries move on.

That said, taking note of the above two paintings, as it were, painted on the same canvas of ‘improving access to medicines for all’, is it not amazing to note a striking similarity in the thought pattern between two highly credible and independent think tanks, belonging to the oldest and largest democracies of the planet earth, to ensure affordable medicines for all?

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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